Film In Conversation
GRAHAM SWON with Gina Telaroli
“The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness.” — Vincent Price as Prospero in Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
I’ve known Graham Swon (né Swindoll) for coming on 10 years now. We met slowly over the years, going in and out of repertory screenings in New York City—35mm flickering in between the entrances and exits. In that time, I’ve seen him occupy quite a few roles in the cinematic landscape, from being an avid watcher to working in distribution to producing the films of our friends like Matías Piñeiro, Ted Fendt and Ricky D’Ambrose. [Full disclosure he also produced my 2016 short This Castle Keep.] With his 2018 film The World Is Full of Secrets, he finally and firmly enters the fray as a writer and director.
Secrets was shot in the summer of 2016 and then edited slowly over the course of the next two years before having its premiere at the 2018 International Film Festival Entrevues Belfort. The time and care that went into that editing process can be felt throughout the film, with its deliberate pace and delicate, disturbing tone. It’s a movie that builds, slowly ebbing and flowing, as his protagonists, a group of teenage girls, spend a dark evening telling scary stories based on real events. Images fade in and out of each other as the narrator, one of the girls as an old woman, recollects the night’s events.
Cinema has become a more narcissistic pursuit these past few years, with filmmakers and especially film-watchers creating and consuming art that more often than not reflects themselves. Rarer is the film (and the audience) that looks outward, towards something or someone else. Secrets does this, not only through its female teenage protagonists, but also through its oral depiction of historical events. The stories the girls tell and the violence they contain are real, impersonal and, in turn, thrillingly uncomfortable.
Over the past few weeks Graham and I talked about Secrets over email.
Gina Telaroli (Rail): I'm curious about your transition from producing to directing and how your work as a producer might have informed the movie, in how you made it or even in the story (stories!) you decided to tell?
Graham Swon: I am just trying to make movies exist, and functioning in whatever form is most useful for that. So, while of course the roles are different, I didn't find it to be such a huge transition. I think most "independent" directors are also working as producers, whether they take that credit or not—the structure of production directly leads to the final aesthetic, and I think this is even more evident when you are working with limited resources. Before I was producing films, I was writing and directing theater. I find it all to be part of the same basic process.
For what it's worth, I do find I feel a lot of connection to films made by producer-directors: Roger Corman, Howard Hawks, Andy Warhol, Val Lewton (the last not a director by credit, but unquestionably an auteur.) I don't know if that affinity is because I've worked in both roles, or if I've worked in both roles because of that affinity.
How the film was made: slow, fast, slow. A lot of time writing, a lot of time editing, and the very short but essential shoot in the middle. I was working a full-time office job through this entire process—which, as you know, adds all sorts of complexities to the realities of making a film. It was shot in two houses, in New Canaan, CT and Mt. Kisco, NY, over 13 days.
To answer the question of why these stories, it's a bit more complex. I am very interested in true crime, but I find the way their stories tend to be treated in cinema rather nauseating, and exploitative of the pain of the victims for the pleasure of the viewer. I wanted to find a way to approach this subject matter which felt to me, for lack of a better word, ethical. How to make a horror film that would respect its victims, and perhaps make its viewers think about them in a different manner.
I started with the idea of making a film around the long story that Suzie tells between the candles, about Mary-Anne. I realized it would be awful to shoot this, to show children doing these things to another child. But I was still interested; I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I felt there was something there necessary for me to explore. When the idea to have others tell the story, characters around the age of the subjects, I realized I had found my approach. I wanted more stories, to create a network of ideas between the stories, and to play with and explode the format of a horror anthology program.
I knew I wanted to contrast the story of Mary-Anne with the story of a historical martyr, and there were so many connections in the story of St. Agnes that it felt essential. I was curious to look at how violence, in particular violence against young women, has been ritualized and fetishized in our culture, and finding a way to make connections across time was important.
The story Clara reads from the newspaper was given by chance—[Swon’s wife] Rae found it, along with the picture of the victim, hidden in an old frame she had bought from a secondhand shop. We were about to go into the production and I realized I had to find a way to include it, to write it in somehow, as it had been given to me for a reason.
Rail: I know there was quite a difference between the original cut I saw and the final version, both in length and content. What was the editing process like for you?
Swon: Editing held a lot of discovery; internally and scene by scene it functions very much as planned, but the transitions and the film as a whole were transformed. As written the film would have run very long - the first cut was 127 minutes, and that was already a reduction. I guess the entire script would have run close to 3 hours—more stories, more poems, many discussions... But that's a different film, something more wholly focused on time. In the final film I wanted to find a balance between the more durational elements and an accessible narrative structure and rhythm. It's very important to me that anyone can sit down and watch it.
Rail: It's a rare thing these days to see a low-to-no-budget NYC independent film that isn't cast with the same rotating group of actors/NYC film scene people. I'd love to hear more about your casting process and what it was like working with teenage girls?
Swon: I guess I am very classical in this sense. I am interested in working with traditional actors, rather than friends or colleagues; I don't know why that has somehow become abnormal in our circles. Many independent filmmakers may feel they lack the resources to find actors, but it is completely achievable. We received several hundred applications and auditioned around 40, first individually and then in groups. It was important they all could exist logically together, but also represent their own little worlds.
They were completely focused and professional. I tried to learn from watching them, to find ways to let their mannerisms and personalities inform the characters. We rehearsed as much as possible, especially for the long stories. I don't think working with teenagers is particularly different from working with any other actor, other than that perhaps they are more fully committed than most adults, and that you have to be extra conscientious of working hours and other restrictions.
Peggy Steffans was a different matter, and no audition was necessary there. She was my first choice to use as the narrator, and I was thrilled when she accepted. She has a marvelous voice, and I am a huge fan of the work she has done in the past, particularly with Adolfas Mekas and her late husband, Joe Sarno.
Rail: Speaking of the narration, I'm curious about when and how that came into the picture? The earlier cut I saw didn't have any and I'm wondering what made you realize that another kind of storytelling was needed?
Swon: It was in the script, but not the first cut. Once I locked the edit, I rewrote and expanded it, as I realized it was a tool that could give me more freedom to choose what to retain; it was at this moment I decide to ask Peggy, and to place the narrator in the future rather than the present. I always liked that the entire film is another story being told. I can't really imagine the film without it anymore.
Rail: As a filmmaker who has long been using extended dissolves/compositing in my own work, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the use of dissolves in Secrets? Alongside the narration, they provide an interesting connective tissue throughout the film.
Swon: It's the haze of memory, images that are diffuse instead of concrete. The principle sensation I want to achieve is that of watching a film late at night, drifting in and out of consciousness, struggling to hold on to each image—It's an underutilized technique. I think there are so many possibilities in cinema that are often ignored in narrative work. I was interested to bring in some ideas you see in experimental cinema—superimpositions, extreme duration—and put them into a narrative context.
Also, I just adore the feeling of this effect. Hard cuts are so violent... I like to think of a film as one continuous image. And of course, this is one of the reasons I love your piece, Silk Tatters (2015), so much.
Rail: There is this wonderful sense of dread in the movie, a feeling that something is going to happen. I know you love horror films and these days so many new horror movies rely on gore and murder and other plot elements, instead of mise en scene, to create their scares. Could you talk a bit about creating that sense of dread, and also any movies, horror or otherwise, that you looked to before making the movie?
Swon: Horror films are about anticipation, denial, release. It's why they often feel sexual, it's a similar pattern. Gore and jump scares certainly can fit into that pattern, but if they are overused, it starts to turn the film into something more like an action movie. I tend to dislike those films, though there are exceptions where it is done right (Takashi Miike, Lucio Fulci). This film takes denial to a very high level. But for denial to be meaningful, for there to be enough tension for the audience to care, there has to be some emotion there waiting to break through. The violence in The World is Full of Secrets is very real, so much so that it had to be sidelined—kept out of frame, even out of the timeline of the film altogether, but still present and brushing up against the viewer.
In some ways, it is a film about watching films, and there were endless films that were important to me in one way or another during the process of making The World is Full of Secrets. The foremost being the work of Val Lewton and Mario Bava. In their baroque minimalism, their ability to weave together poetry and pulp, they are the filmmakers I feel most indebted to. Structurally, I was thinking about horror anthology films, such as Dead of Night (1945) and the Amicus anthologies of the 60s and 70s, where you have a group of people who tell horror stories while they also are living one. Some of the influences are embedded very directly on Clara's TV, like the 1950s Dragnet, which is really about storytelling and off-screen action, and the ghostly audio of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) that concludes the film. In terms of time, Andy Warhol's long-take films were hugely important; in particular Face (1965), which gave me the confidence that the static close-ups could not only hold attention, but allow the viewers experience to grow more complex over time. There are many more: Jean Eustache's Numero Zero (1971), Pasolini's “Trilogy of Life,” Wes Craven's Scream (1996)... but I'll stop myself there, so I don't talk about it all night.